Monday, 30 January 2012

Don't cry for me: Argentine cocktails, anyone?

Tato with a clericot that he has just made me
I don’t normally do bar reviews as such, but an invitation to a new watering hole in South Kensington piqued my curiosity recently—the Gaucho restaurant chain have opened Galante, a cocktail bar on Sloane Avenue inspired by the golden age of Argentine cocktails. No, I didn’t know that Argentina had a golden cocktail age either, but it seems that when US bartenders were fleeing Prohibition some settled in Buenos Aires, just as others landed in London, Paris or Havana, and brought with them a cocktail tradition. Argentina at that time had the world’s sixth largest economy so it was not surprising that Buenos Aires found a stylish international cocktail set to make drinks for—perhaps in the same way that Shanghai became such an exotic melting pot precisely because of all the terrible things going on elsewhere that people seemed to be fleeing, such as Nazism, Bolshevism or indeed Prohibition.

The most famous South American bartender of this era was Santiago Policastro, known as “Pichin” or, because of his dashing personal style, “El Barman Galante”. It is he that the bar is named after and the menu features a number of his classic cocktails from the period 1935 to 1955 (at which point Peron was overthrown by a military coup and Pichin left, spending time in Colombia before ending up in Miami where he died only three years ago). I’m a sucker for anything from this period, and the promise of an “Art Deco inspired” interior was too much to resist.

Santiago Policastro, known as “Pichin”
The cocktail menu at Galante is divided into sections: first come Pichin’s own classics, adapted from recipes he published in his 1955 book Tragos Mágicos (Magical Drinks), followed by a section exploring the various European influences as expats came to Argentina and exposed bartenders to new spirits, liqueurs and fortified wines. Next is a section showcasing hep new drinks created by four top barmen operating in Buenos Aires today and featuring distinctive local ingredients such as Hesperidina, a classic Argentine aperitif with a minty orange flavour, and Legui, a rum-based liqueur. Finally comes a section of “future classics” all created by Renato “Tato” Giovanni, who in 2010 was voted South American Bartender of the Decade. Which is quite something. Tato has been helping launch Galante and he was there on the night manning the shaker. A modest, fascinating chap, he helpfully filled us in on some of the idiosyncrasies of Argentine drinking, such as the yerba maté tea that everyone stands around sipping. It comes in large, loose leaves and is drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla that sieves out the bits. Not only does the tea feature in a number of the Galante recipes but many of the cocktails are served with bombillas—see the photos. I thought it was a cigarette holder at first!

An El Pato, with toothsome nibbles in the background
I kicked off with El Pato, Pichin’s signature drink and named after the Argentine national sport. A mixture of gin, sweet and dry vermouths, Campari, Cointreau and kirsch, served over ice, it is subtle and dry, with a characteristic bitterness from the Campari. In fact the combination of Campari with sweeter elements makes it taste more like Aperol, and the colour is an Aperol shade of orange too. Mrs H. went for another period classic, the Calipso, merging pineapple, grapefruit and raspberry juices with white rum and maraschino. Again this was a subtle combination, a clever interplay of fruit flavours and not sweet, sticky or bubblegummy. I followed with a clericot (an Argentine fruit cup) from the modern end of the menu, in this case a blend of gin, bianco vermouth and mandarin juice (see recipe at the end) garnished with cucumber, mandarin and a sprig of eucalyptus; again this was a restrained and balanced drink, its fruitiness more in keeping with the dry subtlety of classic cocktails than the 1980s “tutti frutti” approach. Mrs H. chose the Torta Galesa (Welsh Cake), made from rum spiced with vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon, shaken with demerara sugar and an egg yolk, a reference to a dish eaten by the Welsh immigrants to Argentina’s Chubut Province. Tato crossed two bombillas over the glass before sprinkling cinnamon, creating a pattern that made it look like a hot cross bun…

Among all the local ingredients in use (they even make a cobbler using Argentine cider) you might expect there would be some local gin—in fact DBS, whose dream is to taste gin from every country in the world, had specifically tasked me to ask about Argentine gin—but Tato told me there were no quality ones. He is in the process of creating his own, which will include among the botanicals yerba maté tea, eucalyptus, local grapefruit from the Mesopotamia region and the aromatic herb peperina, which is also used to make a bitters at Galante. The gin doesn't have a name yet but it should be ready mid- or late 2012 and will then appear at Galante and Gaucho outlets. Perhaps rather rashly, Tato even offered to fly me to Argentina to taste his gin when it was ready!

A Calipso, another Pichin classic from the 1930s
As for the décor, well, perhaps it is Art Deco “inspired”, but don’t expect to step into the set of a 1920s musical. Black and silver predominate and the walls are covered in beveled panels of mirror, which segue cleverly into the windows and make the place seem much bigger than it really is. There is lots of heavy glass, and some of the light fittings do look quite Deco while others look more 1980s. Staff wear black ties and white bartender’s jackets of the period, of which I obviously approve. If you’re peckish try the canapés—they are exquisite.

Overall I can’t recommend Galante highly enough as a chance to try an Argentine take on mixology, with a very classic sensibility, subtly complex, restrained and with a tendency towards a refreshing bitter edge. One cocktail, the Clarito, is essentially a dry Martini served with a sugar rim and was famously created by Pichin for a customer who wanted “a man’s drink that is slightly sweet”. While this might seem to buck the trend I think it is the exception that proves the rule—the very fact that the request was phrased the way it was perhaps tells you a lot about prevailing tastes in Buenos Aires at the time. If you want a man’s drink, albeit an urbane, “galante” man’s drink—hell, the sort of cóctel Humphrey Bogart might drink—give Galante a try.

Recoleta Clericot
1½ shots Tanqueray gin
½ shot vermouth bianco
½ shot mandarin juice
2 slices cucumber
Dash eucalyptus syrup
Dash tonic water

Shake all ingredients together except the tonic, strain into a large wine glass filled with ice and top with tonic water. Garnish with a mandarin wedge, slice of cucumber and some eucalyptus leaves. Tato doesn't specify the tonic but elsewhere in the cocktail menu is a reference to the excellent 1724, which would make sense, given that it is made in Argentina. As mentioned in a previous post, 1724 has a fresh, clean taste characterised by quinine bitterness and citric tartness, with less of the cloying sweetness of typical UK tonics—which matches with the general flavour profile I got from the cocktails I tried at Galante.

Galante, 87 Sloane Avenue, London SW3 3DX, 020 7589 4256,


  1. I don't suppose you've got a line on 1724 tonic at all? Since reading about it last year I've been wanting to get hold of it but I'm still unable to find anyone who stocks it.

  2. I was given a sample by a chap from 10 Degrees C, who handle Gin Mare. At that time there was not any deal actually in place to distribute 1724 here, but I imagine that the Gaucho group can get it because of the Argentine connections. (Tato also said that Gin Mare were interested in getting involved with his gin brand too…) For now it looks as if you can buy 1724 in Harvey Nicks and maybe online.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for getting back to me. Considering paying the remarkable prices at Harvey Nicks just to see if it's as good as it sounds.

      Keep up the good work!

    3. Tragos Magicos by Santiago Policastro [Pichin] Ediciones Riverside Buenos Aires [1st edition] Illustrated by Devito. My father ran a boliche in Argentina and this book is part of our library. Any queries

    4. Tragos Magicos by Santiago Policastro [Pichin] Ediciones Riverside Buenos Aires [1st edition] Illustrated by Devito. My father ran a boliche in Argentina and this book is part of our library. Any queries

  3. UPDATE: By chance I found myself yesterday talking to Ian Reilly, now the manager of Gaucho in Canary Wharf but previously the manager at Galante. He tells me that Tato has indeed completed his Argentine gin. Ian has tasted it but I don't think it is available yet over hear. Tato himself has his own cocktail bar in Buenos Aires which, amusingly, follows the now popular speakeasy template: the front is a shop selling flowers and newspapers, etc. At the back is a fridge door that opens to reveal a crude wooden staircase down into the bar. On Tuesday nights he still mans the bar himself when he is in town.